See biography by his wife, Elsa Lanchester (1938); S. Callow, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor (1987, repr. 1997).
Charles Laughton (1 July, 1899–15 December, 1962) was an English Academy Award-winning stage and film actor, screenwriter, producer and one-time director. He became an American citizen in 1950. While best known for his historical roles in films, he started his career as a remarkable stage actor. During a time when many serious stage actors despised the motion picture medium, seeing it only as a source of income, Laughton showed keen and serious interest in the pioneering possibilities of film, and later other media, such as radio, recordings, and TV, proving that quality work could be made available to audiences other than theatre-goers.
He started work in the family hotel business, while participating in amateur theatricals in Scarborough. Finally allowed by his family to become a drama student at RADA in 1925, Laughton made his first professional stage appearance on April 28, 1926 at the Barnes Theatre, as Osip in the comedy The Government Inspector, in which he also appeared at the London Gaiety Theatre in May. Despite not having the looks for a romantic lead, he impressed audiences with his talent and played classical roles in two plays by Chekov, The Cherry Orchard and The Three Sisters. He played the title role in Arnold Bennett's Mr Prohack, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot in Alibi, the title role in Mr Pickwick after Charles Dickens, Tony Perelli in Edgar Wallace's On the Spot and William Marble in Payment Deferred. He took this last play across the Atlantic and in it he made his debut in the USA on September 24, 1931, at the Lyceum Theatre (New York). He returned to London for the 1933-34 Old Vic Season and was engaged in four Shakespeare roles (as Macbeth and Henry VIII, Angelo in Measure for Measure and Prospero in The Tempest). In 1936 he went to Paris and on May 9 appeared at the Comedie Francaise as Sganarelle in the second act of Moliere's Le Medecin malgré lui, the first English actor to appear at that theatre, where he acted the part in French and received an ovation.
Laughton commenced his film career in England while still acting on the London stage. He took small roles in two short silent comedies starring his wife Elsa Lanchester, Daydreams and Blue Bottles (both 1928) and he made a brief appearance as a disgruntled diner in another silent film Piccadilly with Anna May Wong in 1929. He appeared with Elsa Lanchester again in a "film revue," featuring assorted British variety acts, called Comets (1930) in which they duetted in 'The Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie', and made two other early British talkies: Wolves with Dorothy Gish (1930) from a play set in a whaling camp in the frozen north, and Down River (1931) in which he played a murderous, half-oriental drug-smuggler.
His New York stage debut in 1931 immediately led to film offers and Laughton's first Hollywood film was The Old Dark House (1932) with Boris Karloff in which he played a bluff Yorkshire businessman marooned during a storm with other travellers in a creepy mansion in the Welsh mountains. He then played a demented submarine commander in The Devil and the Deep with Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant and followed this with his best-remembered film role of that year as Nero in Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross. He also turned out a number of other memorable performances during that first Hollywood trip, repeating his stage role as a murderer in Payment Deferred, playing H. G. Wells's mad vivisectionist Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls, and the meek raspberry-blowing clerk in the brief segment of If I Had a Million that was directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
His association with film director Alexander Korda began in 1933 with The Private Life of Henry VIII (loosely based on the life of King Henry VIII of England), for which Laughton won an Academy Award. However, he continued to act occasionally in the theatre, and his American production of Galileo by (and with) Bertolt Brecht is legendary.
Laughton soon gave up the stage in preference for a movie career and returned to Hollywood where his next film was White Woman (1933) in which he co-starred with Carole Lombard as a cockney river trader in the Malaysian jungle. Then came The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) as Norma Shearer's malevolent father; Les Misérables (1935) as Javert, the police inspector; Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) as Captain Bligh, one of his most famous screen roles, co-starring with Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian; and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) as the very English butler transported to early 1900s America.
Back in England, and again with Alexander Korda, he played the title role in Rembrandt (1936). In 1937, also for Korda, he was to have starred in the ill-fated film version of the classic novel, I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, which was abandoned part-way into filming due to the injuries suffered by co-star Merle Oberon in a car crash.
After I, Claudius, he and the legendary German film producer Erich Pommer teamed up, founding the company Mayflower Pictures in the UK, which produced three films starring Laughton: Vessel of Wrath (1938), based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, in which Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester co-starred; St. Martin's Lane, a story about London street entertainers that also featured Vivien Leigh and Rex Harrison; and Jamaica Inn, with Maureen O'Hara and Robert Newton, based on a novel about Cornish smugglers by Daphne du Maurier, and the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in Britain before moving to Hollywood in the late 1930s. (Note: Hitchcock returned to London to film Frenzy in the early 1970s.) The films produced were not successful enough, and the company was saved from bankruptcy when RKO Pictures offered Laughton the title role of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Laughton and Pommer had plans to make further films, but the outbreak of World War II, which implied the loss of many foreign markets, meant the end of the company.
Laughton's film roles in the 1930s were among his finest and consisted almost entirely of the costume and historical drama parts for which he is best remembered (ie: Nero, Henry VIII, Mr. Barrett, Captain Bligh, Rembrandt, Quasimodo, etc). In his modern-dress film roles in his 1940s movies his acting style often led to variable results, particularly in a number of roles for which he was not ideally cast. He played an Italian vineyard owner in California in They Knew What They Wanted (1940); a South Seas patriarch in The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942); (1942); an American admiral in Stand by for Action (1942); a butler in Forever and a Day (1943) or an Australian bar-owner in The Man from Down Under (1943).
Still, some of these post-thirties performances could be remarkable when he came across a good script or a perceptive director, such is the case of a cowardly school-master in occupied France in This Land is Mine (1943), by Jean Renoir, in which he engaged himself most actively , in fact, while Renoir was still working in an early script, Laughton would talk to him about Alphonse Daudet's story "the last lesson", which suggested to Renoir a relevant scene of the film.. He gave also an interesting portrait of a henpecked husband who eventually murders his wife in The Suspect (1944), Directed by Robert Siodmack, who would become a good friend of Laughton . He played sympathetically an impoverished composer-pianist in Tales of Manhattan, and managed to transmit the eagerness of a little man who suddenly gets his only big chance to have success. He would also star in an up-dated version of Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost (1944), and in spite of Wilde's original flavour being mangled in order to turn the story in a piece of wartime propaganda, he was able to recover irony and weary melancholia of the character as Wilde originally devised him.
Apart from these, he would enjoy his work in two comedies he made with Deanna Durbin, It Started with Eve (1941) and Because of Him (1946). He also seemed to enjoy himself both as a blood-thirsty pirate in Captain Kidd (1945) and as a malevolent judge in Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1948). Laughton was on top form again as a megalomaniac press tycoon in The Big Clock (1948). He had supporting roles as a Nazi in pre-war Paris in Arch of Triumph (1948); as a bishop in The Girl from Manhattan (1948); as a seedy go-between in The Bribe (1949); and a kindly widower in The Blue Veil (1951). (Note: He played a Bible-reading pastor in the multi-story A Miracle Can Happen (1947) but his sequence was deleted and replaced with another featuring Dorothy Lamour, and in this form the film was re-titled On Our Merry Way. However, an original print of A Miracle Can Happen was sent abroad for dubbing before the Laughton sequence was deleted and in this form it was shown in Spain under the title Una Encuesta Llamada Milagro).
Laughton made his first colour film in Paris as Inspector Maigret in The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949) and hammed it up enormously alongside Boris Karloff as a mad French nobleman in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Door (1951). He was a tramp in O. Henry's Full House (1952) in which he had a one-minute scene with Marilyn Monroe. He became a pirate again, buffoon-style this time, in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). He guest-starred in an episode of the Colgate Comedy Hour on TV which also featured Abbot and Costello and was notable for his delivery of "The Gettysburg Address". He played Herod Antipas in Salome (1953, with Rita Hayworth in the title role) and repeated his role as Henry VIII in Young Bess (1953). He returned to England to star in Hobson's Choice (1954) directed by David Lean.
Laughton received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his role as Sir Wilfrid Robarts in the screen version of Agatha Christie's play Witness for the Prosecution (1957). (He had been the first actor to portray Agatha Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot when he starred in Alibi - a stage adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - in 1928.)
His final film was Advise and Consent (1962), for which he received favorable comments for his performance as a southern U.S. Senator (for which accent he studied recordings of the late Mississippi Senator John Stennis). Laughton worked on the film, which was directed by Otto Preminger, while he was dying from bone cancer.
Laughton worked closely with Bertolt Brecht on a new English version of Brecht's play Galileo. Laughton played the title role at the play's premiere in Los Angeles on 30 July 1947 and later that year in New York. This staging was directed by Joseph Losey.
Laughton had one of his most notable successes in the theatre by directing and playing the Devil in Don Juan in Hell beginning in 1950. The piece is actually the third act sequence from George Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman, frequently cut from productions to reduce its playing time, consisting of a philosophical debate between Don Juan and the Devil with contributions from Doña Ana and the statue of Ana's father. Laughton conceived the piece as a staged reading and cast Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead (billed as "The First Drama Quartette") in the other roles. It was Boyer instead of Laughton who won a special Tony Award for the performance, possibly because Laughton was well-known for not caring about awards and never attended awards ceremonies when he was nominated for or won one, including the Oscars.
He directed several plays on Broadway. His most notable box-office success as a director came in 1954, with The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a full-length stage dramatization by Herman Wouk of the court-martial scene in Wouk's novel The Caine Mutiny. The play, starring Henry Fonda as defense attorney Barney Greenwald, opened the same year as the film starring Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg and Jose Ferrer as Greenwald based on the original novel, but did not affect that film's box-office performance. Laughton also directed a staged reading in 1953 of Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body, a full-length poem about the American Civil War and its aftermath. The production starred Tyrone Power, Raymond Massey (re-creating his film characterizations of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown), and Judith Anderson. Laughton did not appear himself in either of these productions, but John Brown's Body was recorded complete by Columbia Masterworks, as was Don Juan in Hell.
Laughton returned to the London stage in 1958 in John Arden's The Party which also had Elsa Lanchester and Albert Finney in the cast. He made his final theatre appearances as Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959, although failing health resulted in both performances being disappointing, according to some British critics. The fact that he tried an unorthodox approach to the character of Lear, and was resented by some for having become an American citizen may have also something to do with the lukewarm critical reception, as well, although this is only speculation. His performance as King Lear came in for particular lambasting by critics, with many reviews saying that the portly actor looked more like Old King Cole than Shakespeare's creation, and critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that Laughton's Nick Bottom "...behaves in a manner that has nothing to do with acting, although it perfectly hits off the demeanor of a rapscallion uncle dressed up to entertain the children at a Christmas party". Unfortunately, although a British production of A Midsummer Night's Dream did air on television around this time, it was not the one with Laughton, but rather a 1958 production with Paul Rogers as Bottom.
Although he did not appear in any later plays, he continued to tour the US with staged readings, including a very successful appearance on the Stanford University campus in 1960.
A Brunswick/American Decca LP entitled Readings from the Bible featured Laughton reading Garden of Eden, The Fiery Furnace, Noah's Ark, and David and Goliath. It was released in 1958. Laughton had previously included several Bible readings when he played the title role in the film Rembrandt.
In an unusual move regarding a suspense thriller, Laughton was also heard narrating the story on the soundtrack album of the film that he directed, Night of the Hunter, accompanied by the film's score. This album has also been released on CD.
Also, and deriving from the movie they made together, a complete radio show (18 June 1945) of The Canterville Ghost was broadcast which featured Laughton and Margaret O'Brien. It has been issued on a Pelican LP.
His wife Elsa Lanchester made three LPs in the 1950s entitled Songs for a Shuttered Parlour, Songs for a Smoke-Filled Room, and Cockney London. Laughton introduced the various numbers with spoken introductions on the first two and wrote the sleeve notes for the third.
However, none of Laughton's other record albums have been made available on CD as yet. There are two especially notable ones still waiting. The first is a complete, two LP, Columbia Masterworks recording of the 1950 Broadway staging of George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell.
The other notable recording unavailable on CD is a two LP Capitol Records album that was released in 1962, the year of Laughton's death, entitled The Story Teller. Taken from the one-man stage shows that Laughton loved to appear in, it culls together dramatic readings from several sources. Three of the excerpts are broadcast annually on a Minnesota Public Radio Thanksgiving program entitled Giving Thanks. The Story Teller won a Grammy in 1962 for Best Spoken Word Recording.
It should be noted that Charles Laughton was the first television host on the Ed Sullivan Show to introduce Elvis Presley to much of America. Ed Sullivan had been injured in a car accident and Laughton filled in for him.
Elsa Lanchester appeared opposite him in several films, including Rembrandt (1936) and The Big Clock (1948). They both received Academy Award nominations for their performances in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) - Laughton for Best Actor, and Lanchester for Best Supporting Actress - but neither won.
In 1950, the couple became American citizens.